that rich red thread of connection


spicy tuna, originally uploaded by shaunaforce.

Sometimes a girl just needs her sushi.

Or, in my case, her sashimi.

I vividly remember the first time I ate sushi. 1984, my junior year of high school, late in the year, in Claremont, California. One of my best friends that year was a bubbly girl who laughed behind her hands, an exchange student from Japan named Haruko. We met in the first days of school, because I was the head of AFS, the foreign-exchange group at my high school. Why? Well, I had spent the previous year in London, and I had just started learning how wide the world really is by living away from my home. And I had been lonely there, terribly lonely. So when I returned to good old CHS, I thought I could make life easier for other kids who came to our school. This explains why I ended up at that year’s Sadie Hawkins dance, complete with jeans shorts and cowboy hat, with the shy, gangly boy from Brazil, the one who was clearly gay. And on top of that, I was an inveterate over-achiever, over-reacher, deciding to join everything and help everyone after a lonely year in London. This explains why I was on the Academic Decathalon team, the College Bowl team, the school newspaper, the softball team, student government, and the German club. (I still can’t believe that one. What a geek.) Oh, and I also started the campus’ Beatles Club. Don’t laugh–we had 85 members in our yearbook photo. Thank goodness I had a sense of humor about it all, or else I would have collapsed. I had too many projects planned at one time. (Hm, this is starting to sound familiar…)

But Haruko quickly became more than a project. We connected, in the giggly, intense way that two smart, slightly odd teenage girls can. She felt out of place in America, and I felt out of place in Southern California. She and I, along with our clutch of close friends, danced to Beatles songs in my bedroom, talked about boys, and acted manic. And I became her English translator, fairly quickly. Every day, she came running up to me in the 400 quad to ask a question. “Shauna, what does ‘run down’ mean? Shauna, what does ‘beat’ mean? Shauna, what does ‘free as a bird mean’?” One lunch, I sat in the overheated, vibrating-with-the-hormones-of-500-teenagers energy of the lunchroom, eating my yogurt and snow cone. Haruko ran through the double doors at the top of the stairs, ran down them frantically looking for me, spotted me, then shouted loudly: “Shauna, what does fuck mean?” All heads turned toward me, and I turned the red of the flimsy Yoplait lid.

But I forgave her.

By the end of the school year, she missed her country’s food terribly. Sushi really hadn’t made an entrance into daily American life yet. We take it for granted now, and pick up flubby sushi at the grocery store. But in the early 80s, sushi started to become more widely known. Oh, I had seen sporadic scenes in films, where the American couple awkwardly sits on the floor in socked feet, staring as the Japanese woman dressed as a geisha slides open the bamboo-paper door to place raw fish on the table between them. But that seemed more foreign to me than Kurosawa films. My family never delved into food from foreign lands. Even when we lived in London, we’d drive down to Harrods to buy Lucky Charms and dill pickle chips from the food court, for exorbinant prices. (I know. I’m so embarrassed. But I remember missing pickles so much that I couldn’t wait through the long car ride home to Streatham. Neither could the rest of us. So we parked the car in front of Charles Dickens’ boyhood home and dipped our fingers into the briny liquid, again and again. We emptied the entire jar, the light-green liquid dripping from our fingers, then drove away without once visiting the home.) Never once did we visit Chinatown in Los Angeles for Asian food. I know it must have been there, but it might as well have not existed.

So the first time I ate sushi was in a strip mall place in Pomona. Haruko wanted to share the food of her culture with me, my parents, and my little brother, who had been her proxy family in the US. Sharon came too, which was the source of some tension. Haruko grew threatened that Sharon and I had been growing progressively, indelibly, no-going-back closer, quickly falling into best-friend-love state, with no signs of slowing. (Ah, dear Sharon, who is my all-these-years, continuous friend, still a dear-daily phone call, twenty-one years later. And these days, she’s jealous that she can’t be here, eating these meals I prepare every night, for other people. I’d give anything to have her here.) And with Haruko a week or two from leaving, I tried to focus my attention on her, but I couldn’t help laughing with Sharon, convulsively, about wordplay I never had to translate.

So it was an odd evening. But now, I can only laugh at it, because I’m no longer 17. (Thank goodness.) And we had just returned from the Montclair Plaza, where we had seen—wait for it—Give My Regards to Broad Street, Paul McCartney’s directorial debut. At the time, we were so swoony and determined to like it, that we all agreed, in high, strained voices, that it had been great. But really, it was just very, very awful. (Paul, if by some weird chance, you ever read this, please forgive me. I loved you fiercely enough to overcome that dreck and dross.) So we walked in this little strip-mall restaurant, lit with paper lanterns, and settled into a high-backed booth, laughing and recounting the movie.

The sushi and other Japanese food was gathered along a buffet line, under bright lights. My mother took one look at it and announced she would never eat raw fish. She glared at me when I said I would, because she was convinced we would all die of food poisoning. Instead, she ate chicken teriyaki, well cooked and coated in gloopy sauce. Haruko urged me to try a variety, along with seaweed slices. I ate the papery, dark green seaweed first, my teeth shattering it on first bite. It tasted more salty than the pickles in London, with a thread of darker taste, something from the sea, something my body viscerally didn’t want to eat. My mind flashed on all the times I had swum in the sea at Laguna Beach, and I had squealed when the green ropes of seaweed wrapped around my legs. The seaweed appetizer tasted of that: the sea, the squeal, the seals I imagined swimming around me. I wanted to stop, but Haruko waited for my approval, so I smiled through the last bite, green shards falling from my lips.

Next, I took a bite of the octopus piece Haruko had picked out for me. It took all my tensile teeth strength to bite through it, because it bounced back as rubbery as those flat pink erasers we used in math classes. To me, it had no taste, just texture, and I didn’t really like it. So far, this sushi experience loomed as a terrible disappointment. What was I going to tell my friend?

fatty tuna sashimi

But then there was tuna, silky smooth and meaty, light as air and ravenous making. It was like nothing I had ever tasted, and I wanted more and more. We ate salmon, which had been partially cooked, drizzled with a spicy brown sauce, and I could have eaten forty pieces. Suddenly, with my mouth and my zeal, I could see the appeal of this, why an entire nation ate sushi every day. I paused for rice with squares of cooked eggs, but i went back for more sushi, Haruko dancing with happiness at my side.

I haven’t stopped since.

I’ve eaten thousands of pieces of sushi by now, in London and New York and Los Angeles and Seattle. I’ve eaten sushi I’ve grabbed fast from Uwajimaya, the crowded cathedral of Asian foods in Seattle, ripping off the plastic lid to reach my ungagi. And I’ve eaten sushi of such a fine grade, at Shiro’s, on 2nd Avenue in Seattle (by rumor, where Ichiro eats his sushi) that it slid down my throat with such ease it might as well have been breath. But mostly, now, I remember a dozen hundred meals of sushi with Sherry, at a little place on 77th and Broadway, where they brought us hot towels before we ate our meals, and we gorged on gorgeous sushi while we talked about boys and laughed with our hands flying through the air. Dear, dear Sherry, who is now in New Hope, Pennsylvania, awaiting the birth of her second child, perhaps reading this as she waits out the days, and knowing that still wish we could be sitting eating sushi together. On my last night with her in New York, we sat at a table on the sidewalk outside our other favorite sushi place, on Amsterdam, eating tender eel and spicy tuna, and split a small bottle of perfect chilled sake, toasting the journey we were both undertaking. I still have the bottle. It’s sitting on the windowsill of my office at school, filled with dried flowers I bought on my first trip to Pike Place Market, the day I got back to Seattle.

Ototo sushi

A couple of days ago, tired from a long week, and wanting a break, I drove over to Ototo, my favorite sushi place on the top of the hill. Much fancier, and the food much better, than that strip-mall sushi place I visited first, it has those high-backed booths that remind me of that visit. I ordered pieces of sashimi (sometimes I don’t want the rice clouding the taste of the fish): fatty tuna, spicy tuna, salmon. And others. No unagi, because almost every sushi place has it pre-made, with that syrupy brown drizzle that contains soy sauce. So I have to say goodbye to it. Never mind–there’s much, much more to explore.

I returned home, happy, stopping only to take pictures. And then that melting, satifying taste on my tongue. Taking sashimi home means I can smear wasabi with my fingers, if I want. And I could eat a crate of pickled ginger, if given the chance. It was gone in mere minutes.

sashimi

And somehow, it was all in every bite: the lonely life in London; the AFS club; giggling with Haruko in our sleeping bags; laughing with Sharon in breathless bursts; my mother turning her nose up at sushi but still driving us there; my little brother, now a father, but still sometimes a young teenage boy in my mind; summer skies above Manhattan; being on both coasts at once; falling in love with my friends; and every piece of sushi I have ever eaten, all piled on top of each other on my tongue.

Food is the thread that connects together all the parts of my life.

15 comments on “that rich red thread of connection

  1. Melissa

    Thanks for another one of your lovely and inspirational stories. I find it so incredible that a taste or smell can instantly transport us to another point in our lives, often complete with the emotions we were experiencing at the time. What else can do that so vividly?

    I also suffered through a lonely year abroad in high school (Spain). Though it was difficult it ended up being one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done. And you know sometimes I’ll smell something frying in olive oil and I’m instantly back there, stepping in the door at lunchtime…

  2. the pragmatic chef™

    Great post, Shauna. I think if I was forced to eat only one country’s cuisine for the rest of my life, it would be Japanese.

  3. joey

    You write such beautiful posts Shauna. I love reading them!

    I also remember my first taste of sushi, well, it was actually a tuna roll (tekkamaki). I was so young I can’t rememeber how old, but it still remember how it tasted, and how I felt, like “oh my god what is this it’s soooo good!” I love it to this day and you’ll always find me in the sushi bar of any Japanese restaurant :) Thanks so much for reminding me of that special time!

    The pictures are great btw :)

  4. michelle

    LOL! I love your writing — and hey, I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but I was in ‘Spanish Club,’ student government, the newspaper and yearbook too — so us geeks all grow up to be (still)smart, influential, strong women foodies. :) We get to eat better than any of the non-geeks anyhow! I might just have to make some sushi this weekend. And I tried that watermelon sorbet (but I had to do a granita instead b/c I don’t have an ice cream maker (yet))…divine!

  5. Beth - The Zen Foodist

    I love that final photo of all the colorful sashimi. I could eat sashimi all day every day! Have a great weekend, Shauna!

  6. Travis

    Don’t want to be the rain cloud here, but before one thinks that they want to eat Japanese food for the rest of their life, one should live in the country for some time and try all facets of the food. Sushi is now somewhat like spaghetti or mcdonalds, an international food that often is adapted to the tastes of the country it’s in . Sushi is definately a food that appeals to the international palate, but try to remember all the food that doesn’t leave the country (raw horse, mentaiko, among other things, comes to mind) I’ve met too many people that come here, suprised at disliking the food, and say ‘I can get sushi at home anyway’

    But sushi is great, although suprisingly I don’t eat it very much. When I lived in Kyushu (Miyazaki), there was a great kaiten sushi place called iki iki sushi that had the most creative sushi. Goya sushi, natto sushi, gyoza sushi. They of course had the scallops, etc, but they were always trying new things and it was always exciting to see what new things they were trying. The seats next to the kaiten had taps with green tea that came out of them! Embarrasing that a chain sushi resturant became one of my favorite resturants in Miyazaki!

  7. the pragmatic chef™

    Good point, Travis. I’ve never spent more than 3 weeks at once in Japan, but I’ve been there quite a few times and have definitely seen some food that made me crave a cheeseburger!

    Like you, most of my favorite places to eat were not the fancy ones, they were the revolving sushi bars and the cool little udon stands.

  8. Shauna

    Melissa–

    Thanks so much for your evocation of how food enriches our lives. (And for doing that on your website, with every post!) I adore how food makes me write, like nothing else can. This is so wonderfully grounding. And like you, I regard that first year in London (there was another one, later) as one of the best experiences in my life now. Although I’m willing to bet you had better food in Spain.…

    TPG–

    Thanks. I adore Japanese food too. But I also love Italian. And Spanish. And French. And Moroccan.…

    Michelle–

    I’m so happy that you made the watermelon sorbet! I have to say that I dreamed of it for days, until the plum crumble took over. And hey! I’m so excited that you were a geek in high school too. I’m sure most of us weren’t that suave. Please do let me know when you’re coming up to Seattle, okay?

    Travis–

    Good point. I really don’t want to eat horse. I have to draw the line there. ANd as much as I may sometimes decry the typical American eating style, I’m really thrilled to live in a place (Seattle especially) where I can eat from nearly every cuisine. I like being a poly-gourmet.

    TPG–

    Ah, that longing for a cheeseburger…

  9. cookiecrumb

    Shauna, did you see “Valley Girl? (1983)? There’s a scene where she’s having a party at her house — yuh, in the valley — and plates of sushi are being passed. I thought it was such a funny scene: sushi was already so common, it was party food for teens.

  10. Shauna

    Cookiecrumb–

    I didn’t see Valley Girl until much later, although I was certainly on the edges of living it. (Oh, and I can still do a frighteningly good Valley Girl voice.) My town must have been far behind the Vally, however, because sushi was still pretty rare in 1984. Oh well, I’ve always been a late bloomer!

  11. Mona

    Your pictures are amazing..amazing amazing ! I would have never guessed that was tuna though…whoa! It looks so pretty! I think I know what I’m having for dinner now too…
    and that crumble?
    What a find!

  12. Travis

    thanks for the comments guys. America really does have a somewhat double faced culture of food.It’s too bad we often only think about the mcdonalds one.I like this blog because it focuses on the one that I like! I was at my cousin’s wedding in portland last month, and I saw so many things that are so distinctly American that I wanted so much. Tofuti cuties, garden/boca burgers, silk soy milk, black and raspberries, not to mention a plethora of cheeses and olives that you just can’t find over here (at least for a reasonable price)

    When people here ask me what I miss the most, I usually don’t even bother because these foods are pretty difficult to explain over here, but they are all distictly american (and soo tasty!).

    Flattered that you took the time to stop by my hodgepodge blog, Shauna. Komatsuna really is delicious and you should try using it!

  13. Anonymous

    I love the way you weave your memories together with your food experiences. I laughed out loud at the pickle-jar image and the love you have for your friends shines clearly through your writing. Reading this post was such a wonderful way to start my morning.

    And the tuna.….ah, what a perfect food.

    Amy

  14. ~M

    Do you know what’s in the spicy sauce (ex: spicy tuna)? I am never sure if it’s gf.

  15. Shauna

    M,

    I don’t know what is in the spicy tuna sauce. But I do know it’s gluten-free at my sushi place.